"Boys will be boys" while girls are "pretty in pink"

We still have a long way to go towards changing attitudes of society.

A girl chooses a Barbie. Photograph: Getty Images

My nephew turned eight recently and I struggled to find him a birthday card that didn’t have football images on it. I visited several shops and they were all football-focused. I would like to say I was shocked but it wasn’t a surprise.

On International Women’s Day, we can and should encourage young girls and young women to dream, aspire and achieve. However, it’s essential we deal with the stereotyping of boys or else girls will forever face barriers, direct and indirect discrimination and will always "naturally" assume the bulk of caring responsibilities.

From an early age girls are channelled down the pink aisle and boys down the blue. Social pressure forces "choices" about clothes, toys, sports and hobbies. In the run up to Christmas, when toy advertisements escalate to frenzy point, the typecasting is evident. Girls are shown playing with crying dolls, as boys play with trucks and guns.  

Toy promotion is probably the least subtle form of consumer manipulation in the advertising industry. But it isn’t enough to say that parents, grandparents and indulgent aunts should change their buying choices. Recently in Sweden, a toy company was forced to revamp the way it advertises toys to boys and girls. Top Toy was told by the Swedish regulator to stop stereotyping in its advertising. As a result the company’s 2012 Christmas catalogue showed boys playing with a pink ironing board set and girls playing with a Nerf rifle. Personally, I’m not keen on children of either sex playing with guns but it’s a step in the right direction.

Beyond toys and clothing, a shift in media portrayal of girls and boys is overdue. The media’s early insistence on describing the late Reeva Steenkamp as ‘Pistorius’ girlfriend’ rather than naming her and the Sun’s disturbing portrayal of her in a bikini with the headline "3 shots. Screams. Silence. 3 more shots" appeared to glamorise violence by men against women. This was particularly disturbing given the timing which the day after the "One Billion Rising" global campaign highlighted violence against women and girls.

Gender stereotyping prevails in every section of society. In light of the sexual harassment allegations against Lord Rennard, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 interviewed female politicians who spoke about the male dominated culture in politics. It was effectively suggested by interviewees that any woman going in to politics "needs to get balls and fight off unwanted sexual attention because given half a chance boys will be boys". In short, men can’t help themselves. Frankly, this is both wrong and insulting to most men.

No wonder progress towards parity in Britain’s democratic institutions continues to be slow. Women’s comparative representation in the UK is falling internationally. At its peak in 2001, we were 33 rd  out of 190 countries in terms of female representation. Now we’re 60th .

Women still face entrenched economic inequality in the UK. Women are poorer on average than men with 64 per cent of low paid workers being women. Women in full-time work earn 14.9 per cent less than men. Women have personal pensions worth just 62 per cent of the average for men.

Legislation and government make a difference but can only go so far. We still have a long way to go towards changing attitudes of society. Collectively and as individuals we need to challenge the persistent and insidious gender stereotypes that tell us boys will be boys while girls remain passively pretty in pink.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Fiona Twycross is a London-wide Labour Assembly Member